Third annual Law Conference opens:
Chancellor deplores fallen standards in the judicial system
…calls for implementation of Code-of-Conduct for members of the judiciary
By Mark Ramotar
Guyana Chronicle
May 11, 2003

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“We live in times when there is constant friction between Bench and Bar which quite often attracts the attention of the Media…we also see judges being sued for the performance of their duties (and) one wonders how and why we have arrived at this state? Whatever the reason we must arrest it before all respect for the high ideals of our profession are completely eroded”
-- Chancellor of the Judiciary, Ms. Desiree Bernard

CHANCELLOR of the Judiciary, Ms. Desiree Bernard, has again lamented the sad-state of Guyana’s judicial system, deploring the falling standards in the profession, especially the manner in which some members of the judiciary conduct themselves, and stressed the urgent need for the implementation of a Code-of-Conduct aimed at, among other things, halting the ‘erosion’ of the high ideals of the legal profession.

As such, she urged participants at the third annual Law Conference which opened yesterday at the Hotel Tower, Georgetown, of the need to “look inwards” and to conduct “a close self-examination of ourselves and our inter-personal relationships, particularly as they impinge on our legal relationships”.

“Lawyers come from varied and various backgrounds and cultures but belong to one fraternity, membership of which you enjoy upon being admitted to the practice of law,” she said.

In this regard, she pondered how it is possible to reconcile this disparate group of persons into one cohesive whole, striving for the same objectives.

Noting that the legal profession has a long history of tradition and customs, which were inherited with the English legal system, Bernard said those traditions were so entrenched in the past that Barristers “strove to uphold its high traditions of longstanding”.

According to her, laying down written rules of conduct for lawyers then, would have shocked the sensibilities of any Barrister who would have wondered why it was necessary to tell any Honourable Member of the Bar how to conduct himself or herself.

“Sad to say, it has become necessary to do so in the society in which we live and in which you as lawyers practise your profession,” she told the conference. “We are in an entirely different perspective of what constitutes proper behaviour,” she added.

According to her, those nurtured in the age-old traditions of the Bar are on a different wave-length from others who may regard these traditions as “old-fashioned” and “out of step with modern ideas of morality”.

She argued that in order to unify these conflicting views, it is necessary for an agreed Code of Conduct.

Bernard recalled that several years ago, a Code of Conduct has been drafted by the Guyana Bar Association, but seems never to have been adopted or implemented.

She said about two years ago a new draft was circulated and sent to her for comments which she forwarded, but since then has heard nothing further.

“I urge you to have this code implemented. We live in times when there is constant friction between Bench and Bar which quite often attracts the attention of the Media (particularly the electronic media).

“We also see judges being sued for the performance of their duties (and) one wonders how and why we have arrived at this state? Whatever the reason we must arrest it before all respect for the high ideals of our profession are completely eroded,” the Chancellor stated.

Bernard, in her feature address at the opening of the two-day conference, noted that when she was asked at short notice to deliver the opening address at this third annual conference of the GBA, she readily agreed to do so since she always had a close affinity with the Bar from which she was recruited for the Judicial Bench.

“Thereafter, I pondered what I could possibly say in an opening address to this conference. I imagine that I would be expected to comment on the state of the legal profession and of the Judiciary, as well as, the long delays in the hearing of civil cases and criminal trials, the ever-dwindling number of judges and lack of facilities (and) quite correctly, I propose doing just that,” Chancellor Bernard told the gathering which included Home Affairs Minister, Mr. Ronald Gajraj; Chief Justice, Mr. Carl Singh; President of the GBA, Mr. Nigel Hughes; judges, lawyers and other members of the legal fraternity, members of the diplomatic community and other invitees.

She recalled that since the last Law Conference, the Courts have been “under increased strain and pressure”. The number of judges has dwindled to seven from a complement of eleven while the workload continues to rise, she said.

According to her, constitutional motions are filed with increasing regularity and is only surpassed by the prerogative writs of certiorari and mandamus to ensure review of the actions of administrative functionaries. The Magistracy, she said, is also under pressure with an increased volume of cases involving narcotics and firearms.

The Chancellor pointed out that here again magistrates are seriously under-strength with seven or eight below the complement. “One can only hope that the constitutional process for establishing the Judicial Service Commission will be expedited so that we can endeavour to make some new appointments to both the Judiciary and the Magistracy,” Chancellor Bernard told the conference.

She reasoned that this may, however, prove difficult to achieve in the present environment, given the fact that Lawyers are “not easily persuaded to leave the safe haven of private practice to assume judicial office with all of its constraints of time and freedom of movement, not to mention the ever-present spectre of the Court of Appeal hovering over you like the sword of Damocles”.

These factors, she said, sometimes are a deterrent to a timid practitioner and even more courageous ones agreeing to embark on a judicial or magisterial career.

Bernard, in her lengthy presentation, said she has been informed that the Bar Association has been active in reducing the number of cases which clogs our system by making available a small team of attorneys-at-law who, in cooperation with the Registrar, have succeeded in “weeding out old matters which have been either abandoned or deserted”.

Stated the Chancellor: “It has always been my considered opinion that respect is a two-way street. In our profession, it involves mutual respect by Bench and Bar. Sadly, as stated earlier in days of yesteryear, a Code of Conduct for members of the judiciary would not have been contemplated.”

“If one were even chosen to hold such high office, it was (that) no one even dared to suggest how one should conduct oneself (since) one knew immediately what was expected,” she said.

She said, too, that in all of the judiciaries of the Commonwealth, Codes of Conduct have now been implemented or suggested. In fact the Commonwealth Secretariat has a recommended draft, she added.

“In our jurisdiction, our judges and magistrates have agreed to be bound by a Code of Conduct which has been drafted. When minor amendments are adopted which I hope will be soon, this Code will be made public and available to all judges and magistrates,” the Chancellor of the Judiciary told the conference.

This, she said, is an indication that “we are prepared to regulate our behaviour and bear public scrutiny of our actions.

“I recommend a similar Code to the Bar. I also recommend to both Bar and Bench a study of the law of ‘Contempt of Court’ so that the parameters within which you operate can be defined, and overstepping of these boundaries dealt with accordingly,” she said.

Bernard also noted that since the last Conference with the magnanimous assistance of the Lord Chancellor’s Department of England, four of our judges attended training seminars organised by their Judicial Studies Board, and four others will be going this year.

“This interaction with their English counterparts was of immense benefit to our judges who returned full of enthusiasm and hopefully wiser than when they left,” Bernard asserted.

She noted that there is also ongoing training in the Magistracy, and again the Lord Chancellor’s Department assisted in making a judge of the Central Criminal Court in London available to hold a two-day seminar on sentencing for both judges and magistrates which was held in October, 2002.

The Chancellor also publicly expressed her gratitude to Baroness Scotland of the Lord Chancellor’s Department for “her invaluable assistance”.

Apart from physical assistance in the form of personnel, she said the British Government has “supplied us generously with legal texts on a variety of subjects, and our Library is all the richer for this”.

The Chancellor further said there are ongoing efforts by herself and by the Chief Justice, Mr. Carl Singh, to supplement the meager resources of our Law Library.

Bernard also admitted how very intrigued she was with the theme of the Conference - ‘Rule of Law; Where are you going?’

According to her, this is a very interesting topic which gives rise to various interpretations.

She alluded that over the two-days of the conference, “varying views will be expressed on it and decisions taken as to the direction our profession should take and where we go from our present position”.

“What is of extreme importance to me personally and I hope to the profession as a whole is consideration and discussion on our proposed Rules of Procedure (and) your views are absolutely essential for a speedy acceptance of the new Rules to achieve uniformity in civil procedures in the Caribbean,” she charged.

“I extend good wishes for a successful conference and hope at the end of it you will ascertain the direction in which both you and the ‘rule of law’ are headed,” Chancellor Bernard told the participants.

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